The United Nations (hereinafter UN) affirms that as of 14 October more than 3,000 people have been killed in Syria.[1] On 4 of October 2011, the Security Council gathered to discuss the issue. The US, the UK, France, Germany and Portugal proposed a resolution which was vetoed by China and Russia. The media refer to the veto as a diplomatic rebuff to the West.[2] However, a deeper analysis demonstrates that there has been more than a simple rejection of Western values. It is surprising to notice that along with the countries that voted against the resolution, India, South Africa, Brazil and Lebanon also abstained from supporting it. It is plausible that Lebanon chose to abstain, as Lebanon is a small country surrounded by Syria, and supporting any group now could be particularly dangerous for the future of the country. Nevertheless, India, South Africa and Brazil have claimed that, due to their relevant international role, they deserve a permanent seat on the Council.[3] Nevertheless, they kept silent regarding the situation in Syria. Therefore, the question that remains unanswered is what is preventing the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) from supporting such a resolution? There are many answers to this question, two of which will be the focus of this post. The first answer is that the BRICS countries have a traditional view of the principle of sovereignty; the second might be the fact that the BRICS countries are concerned solely with their economic development.

The principle of sovereignty is emphasised by Article 2(1) of the UN Charter, which affirms that: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”[4] However, according to the Charter, the Security Council “shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken.”[5] Such measures can be without the use of force,[6] through economic sanctions and embargoes, or through military intervention.[7]

Traditionally, only inter-state conflicts deserved the attention of the Security Council; however, due to the emergence of some new facts, this concept has changed. The new aspects that are relevant to this case are the Internet (blogs, videos and media coverage) and new expectations of the role of countries in protecting human rights. Nowadays, everyone with a computer connected to the Internet has access to videos which display, for example, footage of civilians being shot by the Syrian army.[8] However, nothing has been done by the Security Council to stop the conflict in Syria. It is hard to understand why the Security Council chose to act in Libya but not in Syria, since the background for Resolution 1973[9] on Libya is quite similar to that in Syria.

The same dilemma was faced by the Security Council in 1999, when the UN did not authorize the use of force in the Republic of Yugoslavia. Despite this lack of UN authorisation, NATO took action and bombed Serbia. Russia and China condemned the attacks, explaining that NATO violated the Charter of the UN. The lawlessness of the act was not contested by NATO, which affirmed that it acted in order to protect a minority group from a humanitarian disaster.[10] Other countries, such as Libya and Iraq, also questioned the legitimacy of the acts.[11] The issue is still controversial. A fair perspective on the subject is mentioned by Thomas Franck, who suggests that the issue “was technically illegal but morally legitimate”.[12]

During the last decade the UN has developed a concept that would somehow extend the traditional meaning of national sovereignty. In 2005, the UN incorporated the concept of responsibility to protect, which is also mentioned in the recent Resolution 1973.[13]  The concept puts forward that: “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.[14] Nevertheless, if the State fails to protect its own people the concept of responsibility to protect entitles the international community, through the UN, to be responsible “helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those under stress before crises and conflicts break out.”[15]

Responsibility to Protect might be a valuable tool, but it is useless if countries are not willing to implement it. It is here that the second answer to the problem lies. It seems that the BRICS countries are only concerned with their economic development. In this way, a permanent seat at the Security Council would help them to play a better political role. The problem is that this political role might be for their own benefit, since they choose to keep silent about crucial security issues. If Brazil, India and South Africa want more power at the UN they must prove that they deserve it, and not look the other way when people are being oppressed by authoritarian regimes. The permanent members of the Security Council must leave their economic self-interest aside, and protect not only people in Syria, but also in Sudan, Somalia, North Korea, Burma, and so many other places that do not offer financial returns. But this might be only a dream, since Russia is selling arms to Damascus[16], China to Sudan[17] and Brazil, India and South Africa do not wish to provide economic support to those countries in conflict.

P.S. I would like to thank Steve Phillips for proofreading this post.

[1] Syria uprising: UN says protest death toll hits 3000. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15304741.

[2] Why China and Russia rebuffed the West on Syria. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15180732

[3] A new UN Security Council? Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/3693802.stm

[4] Charter of the United Nations, Article 2 (1), 1945.

[5] Ibid, Article 39.

[6] Ibid, Article 41.

[7] Ibid, Article 42.

[8] Syria: ‘Our weapon is the Camera’ in bloody revolution. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/front_page/newsid_9600000/9600000.stm

[9] Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011), 17 March 2011.

[10] Security Council rejects demand for cessation of use of force against Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Press Realease SC/6659, 26 March 1999.

[11] Russia condemns NATO at UN: Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/303127.stm

[12] Franck, Thomas M. Recourse to Force: State Action against Threats and Armed Attacks.  Cambridge University Press, p. 170.

[13] Supra, note 9.

[14] General Assembly. A/60/L.1. 2005 World Summit Outcome. 15 September 2005, para. 138

[15] Ibid, para. 139.

[16] Supra, note 2.

[17] China ‘Trying to Blockpublication of UN Darfur repor. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11593516

  1. Dulzie Bear says:

    Syria is yet another case of being neglected by the world when it needs help because it is not perceived to be in possession of anything material or strategic. But at least it is a recognized state. Since 1996, there has been a crime against humanity perpetrated by the Tibetan government in exile against it own people on the basis of religion (if you can believe that this is happening still). In 1996 the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration placed an unlawful ban on the practice of an ancient Tibetan Buddhist deity known as Dorje Shugden (www.dorjeshugden.com) not because there is any religious basis (the practice has been in existence for over 350 years) but as a means to divide and rule a population that is demanding Tibet’s independence, something the Dalai Lama unilaterally traded away at Straussbourg years ago.

    Anyone who chose not to give up the practice was denied the most basic welfare of health, education, travel documents and voting rights. Dorje Shugden practitioners still live in fear that their homes and families would be physically attacked; they are not permitted to associate with non-Shugden practitioners and even denied entry into Tibetan-owned shops. In the face of all this discrimination, they are not offered any protection from their leaders, the CTA. Wanted posters of Shugden practitioners are put up everywhere in the Tibetan exiled settlements and at one point, various wings of the CTA even conducted a door-to-door witch hunts.

    Not only has India failed to support Syria, India is allowing the CTA to conduct all these human rights abuse on its soil.

    Please read about this crime against human rights: http://www.dorjeshugden.com

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